A must-read... Jocasta's Children: The Imprint of the Mother
Updated: Oct 15, 2021
In 1980, out of a deep dissatisfaction with Freud’s approach to the psychology of women , Christiane Olivier writes a polemical book exploring the relationship and effects of mothers on their children from both psychoanalytic and feminist discourses. In Jocasta’s Children: The Imprint of the Mother, Olivier insightfully questions Jocasta’s role in the drama, her desire and will to sleep with her son, as well as the silence kept around her figure, leading to the ‘making believe’ of the innocence of motherhood, observing the commonly used notion of: “He’s going through the Oedipal stage”, wondering if women elaborate their Jocasta as well, stating: If Oedipus is thought of as the universal model of man, maybe it’s time Jocasta was thought of as the eternal myth of the woman-and-mother. (Olivier, 1989, p.2)
For Olivier, psychoanalysis has only had one ‘wing’ occupying itself with the masculine which is also her starting point. She denounces Freud’s antifeminism not in the same way as most feminists do, but taking him into account from his theoretical base and then finding her way in the examination of the girl’s sexual evolution: “everything he said about women, instead, should be re-studied, retaken, re-examined under another light like a robbed object which is finally given back to its owner” (Olivier, 2011, p.21).
Further on, she postulates whether Freud’s idea of ‘penis-envy’ can be meant as his own breast envy and envy of maternity, femininity and everything which men only dream of in paintings, sculptures and poems. Those breasts which we all encountered at the beginning of our lives in our mother’s arms, but then lose and only dreamt of recuperating as Olivier states that the “envy of the maternal breast, forever lost, and which appears in men as much as in women” and cites A. Leclerc, who claims that “men don’t love women: they look for them, they desire them, conquer them but do not love them. In exchange, women, hate each other” (Olivier, 2011, p.38). That being said, she opens a new space for psychoanalysis to explain the hatred of women towards other women and how women elaborate beyond envies, the aggressive desires against the mother: the first woman who appears in the life of the little girl. Olivier criticizes Freud’s use of words when he writes the “dark continent” referring to the psychology of female sexuality, which is associated with night, darkness and terror revealing his own original fears towards women, very well covered, by a theory which has had its aim to keep women “dominated” (Olivier, 2011, p.50).
In regards to the relationship between the daughter and the mother, what does the daughter claim of her mother? Olivier argues that exploring this topic was difficult and unsuccessful for Freud’s female successors who remained in silence since psychoanalysis has been only discussed in masculine terms and brings up the envy which exists from males in regards to the uterus, as the uterusneid or uterusenvy, rooted in an envy of maternity (Olivier, 2011, p.55). Given the importance of Jocasta, Olivier reminds us of Oedipus’s unconscious sexual desire from the son to his mother and the mother to her son, which exists in society as the “air that the infant boy breathes, educated by his mother or by another woman” and further on examines what the infant girl is psychically fed with when she’s given a bottle of milk by a woman who – by anatomical nature – does not feel any sexual desire for her since she is of her same sex? She is not only educated by her mother, but also deprived of her incestual object which then leads her, as is mostly the case, to seek male desire. The body of the little girl is not desired by anyone ‒ that is why her structure in Oedipus is hard to take place as well as her encounter with the male who desires her. Olivier (2011, p.69) notes that this desire certainly does not start in the nursery or with her first teachers who are positions taken in its majority by women and plays a big role in women’s life.
Olivier also interrogates the relationship of the male in regards to conflicts with his own mother when he is confronted with his wife and the new child: “Does he conserve such bad memories from his mother-son relationship that he refuses to submerge in it again?” (Olivier, 2011, p.71 and p.77) It is clear that the son is for the mother her object of desire, whereas the daughter can only feel that with her father who is mostly absent. She further comments on the violence manifested traditionally by men towards maternity and abortion claiming the promotion of motherhood, making women disappear, referring to the interesting expression in French of “tomber enceinte” alluding to a ‘fall’ (tomber) as though it were an accident, or somehow an unexpected event that the woman encounters when she suddenly falls pregnant, forbidding females to actually have a saying in their desire to have a child (Olivier, 2011, p.71 and p.77) In Spanish however, the word is embarazada and comes from embarazar which also means to be ashamed, uncomfortable and inhibited.
Olivier describes the evolution of the boy and that of the girl arguing that early, in the relationship of the infants’ dependency on the mother, the boy-mother symbiosis will be easier to handle than that of the infant girl until they reach their anal stage in which:
The boy plays war. He takes his soldiers and invents enemies and friends, imagines winners. He threatens, he kills; all of which, transposed, is what he feels. He is at war with his mother over something which was originally his (his stool) but which she is now trying to get away from him. (Olivier, 1989, p.63)
The mother, in turn and unconsciously, resists to give-up the only male she has really had to herself since her father failed her and her husband is usually absent, making it difficult to accept her little boy is growing up. So, at the time of his Oedipus complex, when its dissolution takes place, if it does, the boy shall exit and encounter another difficulty: defending against his mother who does not want to be abandoned and, it is this crucial moment, which opens the road to what Olivier calls and Freud does not mention: “the most prolonged and subtle war against feminine desire; it is here where the boy enters the Oedipal war of the sexes: against his mother” (Olivier, 2011, p.78). This is the origin of the boy’s later ambivalence towards women. “Wasn’t it against his ‘castrating’ mother that the man started to defend himself energetically, in such an aggressive mode” ‒ having encountered first his defense against a symbiosis with her and later on a battle against her expressed desire. This leads to his deep-rooted wish to forbid the other to exist and by doing this, making her desire disappear turning it into the man’s obsession: “How do I prevent the other to exist?” Males seem obsessed for distance to protect and reserve themselves from the other and their demands but most and foremost from a “fusion” with the other (Olivier, 2011, p.78 and p.114).
Olivier claims that the boy will grow “chained” by this trap based in maternal love in which he will always carry an imprint “under the form of terror of feminine domination”, which creates panic in him over any other symbiosis with another woman, as the one he already encountered early in his life with his mother:
A man will spend his time knocking the woman off her throne in one place and crowning her Queen somewhere else. Can he live without ‘adoring’ this woman over whom, in other respects, his phallocratic empire gives him away? Here, then, misogyny and ambivalence stand for the first time together; from now on, they will move as one within the man. (Olivier, 1989, p.62‒63)
For Olivier, this is the generator of misogyny which will drive the man to, then, interpose between him and the woman a social or psychic barrier, opposing himself to her desire at any cost and keeping her only in foreseen places such as within the family, in schools and in the household making this the first objective of the so-called masculine war and also making this a dangerous exit from the Oedipus complex which leaves the man imprinted by the mistrust of women (Olivier, 2011, p.80).
Once this takes place, there are two options in the dispute. One is that the boy after having resisted his mother to such an extent forgets to exist for himself and is therefore a dead child for all of his desire, in other words, to learn to defend himself from his mother, the boy had to give-up all of his desire. Another option is that the boy becomes aggressive starting with his mother and continuing with his surroundings in school, at work and having as an aim triumphing over his mother’s control, which returns to the above-mentioned question on the male’s relationship in regards to his own conflicts when confronted with his wife and son’s relationship. Is this too uncomfortable or irritating for him? Olivier claims the male clearly knows it and remembers his own drama however conscious or unconsciously, but does not dare to subtract or rescue his son from the feminine power, the only one which his wife has since he is in possession and execution of all the other powers. Therefore, it might occur that the boy encounters homosexuality as a teenager with other peers who are under the same web:
Male homosexuality will serve as a defense against the mother, against the woman, against the girl. Male homosexuality in boys is above all a defense against the other sex. (Olivier, 2011, p.81)
Further, Olivier writes: “MISOGYNY IS A CROP SOWN BY ONE WOMAN AND REAPED BY ANOTHER” (Olivier ,1989, p.43, emphasis added) ‒ reminding us the unbreakable bond that exists between mother and son making a woman always marry the son of another woman, giving rise to the conflicts with mother-in-laws until the youngest woman has a child of her own, and the story repeats itself over again:
[T]he son remains secretly tied to his mother and takes a woman to be able to function and reproduce, but who maintains towards her a certain distance, and who will not recognize other rights than those of marital sexuality and maternity. A woman without a husband, without her equal, and that pays the price of the war in which she finds herself entangled for the mere fact of occupying the position of the mother; is the woman who will find in her son the only man who is really close to her in life. This is how the circle closes itself: a woman, for feeling distanced of her husband, will grapple to her son and prepare in him the “distance” for the other woman who will come. (Olivier, 2011, p.83)
Continuing, in what concerns the girl’s evolution, as was said before, the girl is not sexually desired by her mother due to them both belonging to the same sex. Olivier states that while the boy dwells with a “fusion-complementarity”, the girl starts-off with a division of body and spirit while she is cared for and loved as a girl yet not desired in the body of a girl since she does not “satisfy” her mother and could only be for her father.
Only the father could give his daughter a sexually comfortable position, since he sees the feminine sex as complementary of his own and therefore indispensable for his pleasure. (Olivier, 2011, p.83)
That is something the mother cannot experience towards her daughter (seldom it might occur if the mother desires her same sex as an object for pleasure). Therefore, the daughter, girl and later woman will feel “unsatisfactory” and will never be content with what she has and is. She will always aspire to another body which is not hers due to it not being “appropriate” since she possesses a body which cannot arouse any desire in her mother. In the mother’s eyes, the little girl is everything but desired and it drives her to feel denied or negated, this being one of the reasons women “displace” constantly in regards to their own body to be accepted as women. In other words, the sex of the little girl is not enough and her body is like that of no one in regards to her genital apparatus, she possesses a clitoris which is never mentioned:
[S]he is talked to about what she does not have (reproduction and menstruation) and which her mother does have. The girl then discovers envy and jealousy, which in objection to Freud’s thinking of penis envy, is instead born from the mother-daughter relationship. (Olivier, 2011, p. 87)
For Olivier, the little girl will sexualize everything which can be seen of her from the eyes of others due to the fact that she could not be seen for having a sex since her clitoris was not recognized. Olivier notes how infrequent it is for mothers to speak to their daughters about the clitoris which is instead replaced by the maternal unconscious saying to her: “you will be a vaginal woman who will later enjoy having pleasure with a man” (Olivier, 2011, p.84). Thus, the girl refuses her clitoris and part of her sexuality which is in fact comparable to the mother’s body until she becomes a teenager and starts menstruating as well.
As a consequence of this, the sexual identification of the daughter with her mother renders difficult and the little girl who is then ‘sexless’ (for an unrecognized clitoris), and is not a sexual object for her father who is mostly absent, will then sexualize everything in her, her body, her actions, her language making a woman: “value herself from her EXTERIOR to give significance to her INTERIOR SEX” (Olivier, 2011, p.89) ‒ in addition to having to give an enormous amount of duties to fulfill this unrecognized sex and to prove her femininity.
Olivier claims that women are many times worried of losing their “being liked” by men and do not confide in finding their recognition from other women since they fear they might encounter the rivalry they already encountered with the first woman in their life: “The war against the mother, the war against Jocasta, enthroned mistrust more than homosexuality.” (Olivier, 2011, p.89) Once the girl reaches puberty, she suddenly receives the recognition for her body, which had been unacknowledged until then, making life for the woman a constant fluctuation between empty and full, too much and too little, with a body that is loud or not loud enough and a spirit which is in constant search of regulation (Olivier, 2011, p.143).
In Olivier’s view, the Oedipal mark adopts a form of resentment against women that no man can escape, making man’s identity characterized as the rejection of a woman as her equal. However, in women it will adopt the form of a race towards male desire which will in turn make her a slave of the law set by men and mistrust towards other women. This is then the creator of the “infernal circle” in which the woman, who is not desired as an infant, reaches her adult life seeking the desire of a man who in his turn, positioned as the “dominator”, will have a bone to pick with the woman as a memory from the unpicked bones with his mother. In her turn, the woman seeks in the man the repairing love she did not get, will fall in the castrating love of this one, who has decided that she will never take the throne or reign, generating jealousy for the conquest of men and misogyny in respects to women, very accurately stating that the situation that women currently live, was given birth to by themselves: “it is mothers who prepare the future misogynists with whom their daughters will suffer…!” (Olivier, 2011, p.92)
Olivier also writes about the orality she experiences in her female patients who suffer more from anorexia and bulimia than men and who often transmit in the clinical setting expressions such as: swallowing, filling-up and feeling complete with her words as some kind of nourishment since the bottle of milk they received was empty or in other words lacked the taste of desire: “a bottle full of milk but empty of desire since it was given by someone of her same sex” which in many cases leads to frigidity as a form of rejection of what comes from the “other” connecting it to being bad or dangerous coming from a ‘bad’ mother (Olivier, 2011, p.104).
Lastly, in Olivier’s view, men spend their life refuting the influence of women as well as withholding care and affection in a prolonged anal struggle for freedom from the mother’s control, as well as her sexual dominance, whereas women crave the affection they did not get from their mothers. This being due to the nonrecognition of her female genital sexuality in the relationship with her mother, leading to a lifelong pursuit of external approvals of her desirability. Also, to a poor self-image, making these mutual contradictory and mostly unconscious arrangements of the heterosexual marriage an: “impossible encounter” in which both man and woman are searching the lost symbiosis (Olivier, 2011, p.161).
How is then a sexual relationship submitted to the unconscious? Olivier claims that the man will try to reproduce his first love with his mother, but this time with his wife and both will try to recreate the symbiotic relationship they once had. For Olivier, starting with a symbiosis, love must be understood as the art of compromise between fantasy and reality of each member of the couple. Both must understand that symbiosis is as dangerous for them, as the one they lived with their mother and which can further lead to masochism, that is to say, the death of one or the other, or both. A painful recognition must take place in the difference, which must be assumed as well as that of the distance which must be maintained. There are always instances of crisis in couples, which for Olivier take their form when the members of a couple realize that they did not find in the other what they were looking for in the first place, (p.165 and p.172) and love then can turn into violence as Slavoj Žižek states in The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema:
All too often, when we love somebody, we don't accept him or her as what the person effectively is. We accept him or her insofar as this person fits the co-ordinates of our fantasy. We misidentify, wrongly identify him or her, which is why, when we discover that we were wrong, love can quickly turn into violence. There is nothing more dangerous, more lethal for the loved person than to be loved, as it were, for not what he or she is, but for fitting the ideal. (Žižek, 2006)
Olivier, C. (2011). Los Hijos de Yocasta. México: Fondo de la Cultura Económica.
Olivier, C. (1989). Jocasta’s Children. New York: Routledge.
Žižek, Z. (2006). The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. Documentary directed and produced by Sophie Fiennes.
Schiele, E. (1913). Mutter und Tochter